One of the things you learn if you are someone who is rather artistically inclined, is that you're going to have an off day. In fact, you're going to have several. You're going to produce work that you're not all that happy with. In some cases, you'll publish your work or have it premiere at festivals around the country, only to discover that the public loves it, is eating it right up and cannot wait to see what you do next (never mind that you hate it, you've always hated it, and you don't know why you went along with the idea right from its inception.) Take a look at Anthony Burgess, who wrote A Clockwork Orange while dying from cancer only to discover...that he didn't actually have cancer and saw a book that he viewed as his worst become a classic among anarchists and film aficionados alike. Isn't that horrible? Next: You're going to produce work that the public detests but that you view as your personal best. And finally, you're going to produce work that you possibly churned out while enveloped in some weird, drug induced haze. More often than not, this category is populated with the sort of material that becomes a cult classic. And more often than not, scores of us will scratch our heads in disbelief and think: How the hell did that happen? and the even better What the FUCK was this person on? That's the feeling I had and it sums up Sidney Lumet's The Wiz in a nutshell.
I'd heard of The Wiz of course. Being a film fan, I've spent countless hours online looking at 'Top Ten' and 'Bottom Ten' lists for my own education and amusement. The Wiz is one of those films that I'd see constantly on the latter sort of list. It's pretty much a fact that Sidney Lumet is widely considered one of the greatest directors of our time. Mind you, I have not seen a good portion of his films, but the man had a stellar reputation. Then I looked at the year: 1978! Lumet had a legendary run in the 1970s--these were the years when his Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and the amazing Network dominated the box office and Oscar races. Then I actually saw the film and my immediate thought was Did he have a bad day or what? because there's no denying that this film is bad. But it has a huge cult following. I can see why, but the reasons why will not make up the crux of this review. What does interest me (and I'm sure will interest you) are all the things this film does wrong--and I mean dead wrong.
As an example, take note of all of the scenes where the characters sing. The songs themselves, which I'm sure are great on stage, lack what some might call pizzazz. Clearly, these songs were made for a stage show, because everything about them, from what we can see, screams SPECTACLE. The problem is: Where's the spectacle? There is none to be found. This could be easily remedied by keeping the camera up close and personal with each actor and their movements. After all, why watch a musical if you're not going to show shots of people executing fun, lively and oftentimes, very complicated dance scenes? Look at Chicago, which, while far from perfect, makes great use of its gaudy speakeasy atmosphere by framing Renee Zellwegger and Catherine Zeta-Jones on stages where their feet and voices do the talking (or singing...as it should.) Look too, at older Hollywood musicals, whether they be Singin' in the Rain or It's Always Fair Weather, where the camera hugs the performer close and allows the audience into the magic, this world where people do burst into song at the drop of a hat, where Judy Garland's familiar Oz makes a much more different appearance under the guise of the urban streets of Harlem and where Michael Jackson is the most believable actor in the film (not to put down Michael Jackson, but he's a singer first and actor second).
Lumet does not do this. There are so many long shots that we can't even get a glimpse of fancy footwork and we can't even hope to have a gander at the giddy over-the-top universe where the musical, as an art form, resides. Rarely have I seen a musical be as cold and distant as this one. Why should I care and why should any of you care about the main attraction of a musical when you can't even see what's going on? Not only is the camera work absolutely shoddy, the lighting is irresponsibly gloomy, making Oz look gritty, grainy, cramped and by all means, oppressive, a style more suited for the angry, provocative dramas by which Lumet made his name. His directorial powers ill-placed, he managed to make the sets and costumes look cheap and silly, more suited for a low-grade television production than a big budget studio picture.
To top it all off, the performances are embarrassingly bad, though Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man and Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion all get in a few good moments. Richard Pryor, as the film's title character, displays less depth than the average wading pool. The worst performance though, comes from the film's lead, for there have been few women as badly miscast on film as Diana Ross. I had to laugh when I read sometime ago that it had 'always' been her dream to play the role of Dorothy on stage when The Wiz as a commercial commodity was less than five years old by the time this film went into production. Upgrading the role of Dorothy from that of a thirteen-year-old school girl to a twenty-four-year-old emotionally unstable schoolteacher, Ross's performance really has to be seen to be believed. In an attempt to display actual acting talent, Ross's character, coupled with the lack of vocal chops, comes off as disturbed, naive, annoying, lifeless and both histrionic and neurotic. This might have something to do with the rather troubling fact her Aunt Em reveals
Girl, do you know you're twenty-four years old and you've never been south of 125th Street?which does nothing to allow us to sympathise with the (obviously) very sick young woman at the film's centre. Perhaps what is most troubling about this portrayal is that Ross is playing twenty-four, yet looks to be in her late-forties (and she doesn't look like someone who's been having a decent time dealing with the highs and lows of age); thus the performance is completely lacking in the genuine childhood innocence that made the character of Dorothy one that we both relate to and love.
In a way, Ross's portrayal is in line with the very confused and convoluted way this story unfolds--she looks like she doesn't want to be there and this film does not know what the hell it wants to be. Dorothy's Oz was meant to be a dream world where those that occupied her reality had fantasy counterparts. The Wiz does not set up any correlation between the two worlds and by story's end, we are not even sure that the magic even exists, not when the 'Oz' Ross's Dorothy finds herself in is populated with drug dealers, hookers and their pimps and other damning stereotypes that factor in and remind us that we are looking at an adult vision that is a perverse version of the original, which was intended for children in the first place. The lack of a through line in the story only serves to make Dorothy come off as the downright insane victim of arrested development that she is. Does The Wiz sound like something you'd want your children to see? (I did mention it being rather grim!)
The highlight of this film? Definitely Lena Horne's portrayal as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Swooping into the proceedings in a rather ridiculous looking outfit (but did you really expect any better?), she sings--and I mean SINGS--with her trademark passion and gusto and manages to turn the entire film upside down in the span of three minutes. Why couldn't there have been more of her, more of THAT? What a shame!